A new music dream scores big in new film

I have often publicly lamented the dwindling numbers of new music concert-goers. With friends and family I have tried to win a wider audience by relentlessly extolling the virtues of the open-minded listener. With fellow composers I have fretted and fussed about the pressing need to find ways to gain greater exposure for contemporary art music.

When I made these stands, I was thinking about a certain world of scored music — a world that contains the practice room, the concert hall, the CD shop, and so on. It is this world that I saw shrinking, a trend that made me fear a decline in all arenas of scored music.

What I have previously neglected to consider is the profound and growing effect that film scoring has had in the musical life of most every American for the last eighty years. Typing these words, sitting in the basement of the Department of Music, it seems near heresy to claim movie production as a platform for the development of art music. Neither the departments of Music nor Film Studies offers a single class on movie music. Only a few very determined students of composition here at Yale even consider film scoring as a possible career path. Composition in academia lives primarily in a hermetically sealed world, and it is this world that gets written about as the future of scored music. Many casually dismiss film soundtracks as existing on a more simplistic, anti-intellectual plane.

Far from true, however, is the notion that film composers are producing work that is any less interesting or compelling than the work of staunch academics. As a shining counterexample, and as the last figure in this Yalies in the Biz series, I offer Thomas Newman, graduate of the Yale School of Music. You’ve undoubtedly heard Newman’s music, even if you’ve never heard his name. If you’ve been to the movies in the last 10 years, chances are you’ve been entranced by a Newman score. He picks his projects well. His credits include “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” “The Road to Perdition,” and, most famously, “American Beauty.” The composer specializes in music that is at once softly atmospheric and singularly lyrical. In “American Beauty,” his use of altered tunings, his ethereal, reverb-heavy piano lines (the bag blowing in the wind), and his (now excessively copied) dependence on the marimba for the bulk of the movie makes his music as exciting, moving and fresh as a score analyzed in the halls of WLH on a chilly Thursday afternoon.

While academic composers labor over questions of exoticism and post-modernist aesthetics, Thomas Newman freely puts the musics of different cultures to work. In “Little Women,” Newman made effective use of traditional American folk songs and hymns while maintaining his own compositional voice throughout the film. Likewise in “Road to Perdition,” the additions of traditional Irish sounds lent his dreamy orchestral colors a lyricism that tapped straight into the tear duct. Despite some weak plot development and a tragically predictable ending, “Road to Perdition” was made epic by the elegance and strength of its soundtrack.

Perhaps in the years to come, music history classes will name Thomas Newman as one of the important composers of our day. They certainly should.

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